Decorating & Design

September 16, 2011

Interview: Jonathan Adler

One suspects designer Jonathan Adler has a great sense of humour just by looking at his cheeky designs. Reading the not-so-fine print on his website confirms it. Take this bio entry: “Tapped to design a real-life Malibu Dream House to celebrate Barbie’s 50th. Can finally make amends for decapitating sister’s Barbie in 1974.” It’s the same gleeful irreverance that put canisters labelled “Prozac” and zebra-shaped rugs decorated with the Union Jack in fashionable homes.

This is Adler’s stylish sleight of hand: he’s able to integrate lightheartedness into serious design ideas. His Deco-inspired animal sculptures come to mind first, but he has a large body of other work to prove it, including housewares, accessories, textiles, furniture, lighting and stationery. “I believe design should come with a dose of levity,” he says. “Things can be beautiful and high-minded while still being happy.”

Happiness is not only a state of being for Adler but an approach to business. His Happy Chic brand makes design approachable and fun. And he has also released three books, Happy Chic Origami (2011 Sterling), Happy Chic Accessorizing (2010 Sterling) and Happy Chic Colors (2010 Sterling), that strive to bring his joyful ethos to the masses.

Adler fell in love with pottery as a child, and his works now include elegant sculptures and collector’s pieces. He became a household name after opening eponymous retail stores in Miami, Chicago, San Francisco and New York. And he appeared as a judge on Bravo’s Top Design. But what Adler values most is time at home with his husband, Simon Doonan, creative director for Barneys New York, and their beloved Norwich terrier, Liberace.

House & Home: Is there one area of design you’re most excited by these days?

Jonathan Adler: Just more, more, more! I’m happiest designing new stuff.

H&H: Are you still most passionate about pottery, though?

JA: I am, first and foremost, a potter. I was 12 when I first tried pottery at summer camp. I’d gone to be a soccer star, but then I laid eyes on the superfoxy pottery teacher and decided to take his class instead. The minute I touched clay, I was obsessed and I’ve been passionate about it ever since.

H&H: Are you from a creative family?

JA: Yes. We lived in a remote farm town, but my parents were urban refugees. Many of my design influences are from my childhood. I was brought up in a very groovy house. My dad was a rigorous modernist, so the house was all white and full of Knoll furniture. My mother has a more colourful and exuberant spirit, so she accessorized our pad with lots of Marimekko fabrics and nifty trouvés.

H&H: How much hands-on work do you do these days?

JA: A ton. All of our prototypes are handmade in my pottery studio in SoHo.

H&H: What do you think is your most successful design?

JA: That’s a tough one, because I love all my stuff. My fave piece — at this moment — might be my Horse Tray. I love how all the lines flow into each other. I know something is good when it looks like it’s supposed to be that way. Good design almost feels revealed rather than created — like it was always there, waiting to be discovered.

H&H: Do you feel you had a lucky break at any point in your career?

JA: After college, I worked in the movie business for several years and got fired from every job I had. So I gave up and decided to become a potter. When I showed my pots to a buyer at Barneys, I got an order. The rest is history.

H&H: How do you describe your personal style?

JA: I’m definitely rooted in modernism, but in a maximalist way. I embrace bold colours, groovy graphics and modern forms and put them all together in my mental blender. Graphic patterns are always beautiful and make you feel happy. My motto is: Classical foundation, playful punctuation. It’s the little gestures — a bright orange lacquered tray or a needlepoint pillow that says “Pill” — that make a home fun and memorable.

H&H: Whose style do you most admire?

JA: My husband’s. He puts on a Liberty shirt with a jacket and tie and looks fab.

H&H: Do you follow anyone on Twitter?

JA: I follow Robert Verdi and Kathy Griffin, because they are always doing cool things and are hilarious. I also keep up with people I work with at design*sponge and Apartment Therapy.

H&H: Describe your own home.

JA: Our New York apartment is really great. We’re lucky to have a big space; it’s an ever-changing laboratory of my new stuff. It’s eccentric and bold and colourful and very personal. I love it.

H&H: What’s a perfect night out?

JA: It’s actually a perfect night in. Dinner with my bloke watching the “holy trifecta” of Intervention, Hoarders and Lockup — we have an inexplicable love for depressing documentary TV — followed by a game of ping-pong in the living room. I always win.

H&H: Do you often entertain at home?

JA: Yes. Every workday is chaotic, so the idea of a loud restaurant at the end of the day is deeply disturbing. So we always have friends over for dinner. Simple fare — roasted chicken, apple pie, grilled veggies — and a game of ping-pong to aid digestion.

H&H: Any advice for others who find entertaining stressful?

JA: Host a buffet dinner with comfort food and serve yourself first — it takes the pressure off everyone.

H&H: How has working with Aid to Artisans enriched your life?

JA: It’s always rewarding to work with organizations that are enhancing the lives of others. I’m really proud to have created hundreds of jobs in Peru.

H&H: What are you most proud of?

JA: That I have stayed true to myself, and my dream of being a potter, after all these years.

Author: Catherine MacIntosh